Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Tokyo Train Tech-crusher, and lightening the load for presentations with the Amazon Fire TV Stick

Sometimes I have to make presentations. Back in the UK, this was never a huge problem; even on those occasions when I had to take the train, the trains were always roomy enough that I could find a safe spot for my bag.

Having started work in Tokyo, the main problem I have with giving a presentation is the crush of rush hour. Usually, its at least tolerable; however, on occasion, often due to a delay of some sort*, people will cram themselves into the train until the passengers become compacted into a solid wall, making it impossible to add further bodies. Personal space is limited to whatever clothes separate you from your neighbour... Then again, the jostling, elbows and corners of bags poking into me almost makes it feel as though my personal space is limited to my head, which tends to rise at least a little way into the little breathing space that is left at the top of the carriage**.

The first few times I was caught in this situation, I found my bag pulled off my shoulder as people flowed around me from the door like sand filling every gap at the bottom of an hourglass. Another time, the zip of my bag got itself caught on the belt straps of some poor salaryman's trousers. Some simple solutions to this is to have a backpack (usually worn at the front, presumably to keep the nearest person in front at least a bag's width out of one's face), or to press your shoulder-bag hard into your front. There are luggage racks, but count yourself lucky if the Brownian motion of people into the carriage happens to afford you a space near one (and lucky again if you find a space to put your arms once you've finished stowing your bag).

If you have to take something fragile with you, you certainly have a few options, of course. Firstly, you can try leaving earlier, and simply wait for a carriage that doesn't happen to be packed. This is particularly good if you don't need to be somewhere during the rush hour; jams during the day generally are due to accidents etc., and tend to clear up before too long. If that isn't an option, you might reserve a seat (if there are green cars on the train). Otherwise, you could just bring a reinforced case for that laptop.

The latter option strikes me as the one that offers the greatest flexibility and convenience; however, laptops are heavy enough, without buying bulky casing, and the increased size of the baggage is also bound to be another headache. So, instead of thinking bigger, stronger, better, I decided to go the opposite direction.

The Amazon Fire TV Stick is essentially an Android computer that plugs into an HDMI port. I was at first put off by its name, which sounded less functional to me than the "Chromecast" by Google; however, the Fire Stick has one very potent advantage for what I had in mind: onboard apps. While chromecast would probably be my main choice if I intended to stream media from one of my smaller devices to a bigger screen, I don't own (or desire) a TV***, and given my experience with wifi connections, I suspect that if the system functions better in isolation, it will be more practical for applications on-the-go.

Of course, my second-hand monitor has no HDMI port, so I had to buy an HDMI-VGA adapter to actually ensure the presentation setup works beforehand (the adapter works surprisingly well, and has audio output too, just in case I want to use the Stick for recreation). On the bright side, this will come in handy if I happen to present somewhere without HDMI.

The next obstacle to abusing the device into doing work, rather than play, was the lack of any decent office software on the Fire Stick's app store. Luckily, there is plenty of information on how to install standard Android software, WPS office being my suite of choice.

Excellent. And WPS office plugs straight into Dropbox, letting me pull down presentations in no time. The problem, however, is that WPS office requires a touch screen or mouse. I managed to get as far as linking WPS with dropbox, downloading, and opening a presentation file, but the Fire Stick's remote just wouldn't let me select the "play" button. There are a number of mobile-to-TV apps that I could have used to solve this problem; however, I wanted to be sure that the device will function even if my phone batteries die and the wifi has exploded. This is where Mouse Toggle for Fire TV comes in. It lets you double press the play button on the remote to summon a cursor that can be controlled by the up/down/left/right keys on the remote. Not exactly elegant, but better than buying a bluetooth mouse (after all, I won't actually be producing any content on the Fire Stick*4), and the remote will double as a slide-changer which I can use without being tied to a laptop.

So, I found myself in a position where I can actually give a presentation. Lovely. Especially considering the entire kit could fit inside my pocket. The only problem is that the Fire Stick wont show non-native apps in its main menu. Every time you want to open the app you have to go to Settings>Applications>Manage Applications>[Application name]>Launch. Ye gads. The Fire Stick isn't the sprightliest of devices, and add in that you might need to enter a pin to use the Manage Applications menu (depending on your security settings), this takes too much time; what if I need to switch applications, perhaps to open a paper I reference in the presentation, in response to a comment?

Thankfully, there is a friendly group of arsonists programmers that have developed "Firestarter", which is basically an app tray that loads automatically, leaving the original system intact, but doing away with its annoyances. Now, I can switch between apps at a reasonable pace, and set up in a much more reasonable order of time (you can download it here).

Of course, I can control the device using my mobile, if needs be, and it also supports miracasting; however, in my opinion its ability to run as a standalone device is its greatest strength. Even if it needs a little persuading.

On the day of the presentation, I was happy to have a lighter load on the 1-hour, standing train journey, and not have to worry about the device imploding (the box it comes in is fairly sturdy). Moreover, set-up was simple using the seminar room's HDMI input, and the device was responsive enough for a smooth presentation.

*Japanese trains are generally pretty punctual, but I think the massive throughput of the Tokyo railway system means even a small delay can cause a pretty jam. Longer delays are nightmarish.

**I regularly complain about how annoying it is being tall, and its rare I get through a day in the city without knocking my head on a hand-strap; however, when the big squeeze occurs, I'm only too happy to have my head as far away from the seething mass of shoulders and elbows below. I can only imagine what that must be like for a shorter person...

*** Yeah, Amazon Fire TV Stick... Ironic, I know. I should also point out that I don't think the Chromecast is bad; for a home set-up or anywhere you have good control over possible show-stopping factors, the Chromecast would be an excellent (and marginally more economical) choice.

*4 That's what proper computers are for... Though I find it ironic that I have a beast of a machine in the laboratory, and giving a presentation just a few feet away requires a far less functional device.

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